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All early-morning conversation in Captain Joe Catalanotto's outer office stopped dead as everyone turned to look at Lucky.
It was a festival of raised eyebrows and opened mouths. The astonishment level wouldn't have been any higher if Lieutenant Luke "Lucky" O'Donlon of SEAL Team Ten's Alpha Squad had announced he was quitting the units to become a monk.
All the guys were staring at him—Jones and Blue and Skelly. A flash of surprise had even crossed Crash Hawken's imperturbable face. Frisco was there, too, having come out of a meeting with Joe and Harvard, the team's senior chief. Lucky had caught them all off guard. It would've been funny—except he wasn't feeling much like laughing.
"Look, it's no big deal," Lucky said with a shrug, wishing that simply saying the words would make it so, wishing he could feel as nonchalant as he sounded.
No one said a word. Even recently promoted Chief Wes Skelly was uncharacteristically silent. But Lucky didn't need to be telepathic to know what his teammates were thinking.
He'd lobbied loud and long for a chance to be included in Alpha Squad's current mission—a covert assignment for which Joe Cat himself didn't even know the details. He'd only been told to ready a five-man team to insert somewhere in Eastern Europe; to prepare to depart at a moment's notice, prepare to be gone for an undetermined amount of time.
It was the kind of assignment guaranteed to get the heart pumping and adrenaline running, the kind of assignment Lucky lived for.
And Lucky had been one of the chosen few. Just yesterday morning he'd done a victory dance when Joe Cat had told him to get his gear ready to go. Yet here he was, barely twenty-four hours later, requesting reassignment, asking the captain to count him out—and to call in some old favors to get him temporarily assigned to a not-so-spine-tingling post at the SEAL training base here in Coronado, effective ASAP.
Lucky forced a smile. "It's not like you'll have trouble replacing me, Captain." He glanced at Jones and Skelly who were both practically salivating at the thought of doing just that.
The captain gestured with his head toward his office, completely unfooled by Lucky's pretense at indifference. "You want to step inside and tell me what this is all about?"
Lucky didn't need the privacy. "It's no big secret, Cat. My sister's getting married in a few weeks. If I leave on this assignment, there's a solid chance I won't be back in time."
Wes Skelly couldn't keep his mouth shut a second longer. "I thought you were heading down to San Diego last night to read her the riot act."
Lucky had intended to. He'd gone to visit Ellen and her alleged fiancé, one geeky college professor by the name of Gregory Price, intending to lay down the law; intending to demand that his twenty-two-year-old baby sister wait at least another year before she take such a major step as marriage. He'd gone fully intending to be persuasive. She was impossibly young. How could she be ready to commit to one man—one who wore sweaters to work, at that—when she hadn't had a chance yet to truly live?
But Ellen was Ellen, and Ellen had made up her mind. She was so certain, so unafraid. And as Lucky had watched her smile at the man she was determined to spend the rest of her life with, he'd marveled at the fact that they'd had the same mother. Of course, maybe it was the fact they had different fathers that made them such opposites when it came to commitment. Because, although Ellen was ready to get married at twenty-two, Lucky could imagine feeling too young to be tied down at age eighty-two.
Still, he'd been the one to give in.
It was Greg who had convinced him. It was the way he looked at Ellen, the way the man's love for Lucky's little sister shone in his eyes that had the SEAL giving them both his blessing—and his promise that he'd be at the wedding to give the bride away.
Never mind the fact that he'd have to turn down what was shaping up to be the most exciting assignment of the year.
"I'm the only family she's got," Lucky said quietly. "I've got to be there for her wedding, if I can. At least I've got to try."
The Captain nodded. "Okay," he said. That was explanation enough for him. "Jones, ready your gear."
Wes Skelly made a squawk of disappointment that was cut off by one sharp look from the senior chief. He turned away abruptly.
Captain Catalanotto glanced at Frisco, who worked as a classroom instructor when he wasn't busy helping run the SEAL BUD/S training facility. "What do you think about using O'Donlon for your little project?"
Alan "Frisco" Francisco had been Lucky's swim buddy. Years ago, they'd made it through BUD/S training together and had worked side by side on countless assignments—until Desert Storm. Lucky had been ready to ship out to the Middle East with the rest of Alpha Squad when he'd received word that his mother had died. He'd stayed behind and Frisco had gone—and gotten his leg nearly blown off during a rescue mission. Even though Frisco no longer came out into the field, the two men had stayed tight.
In fact, Lucky was going to be the godfather later this year when Frisco and his wife Mia had their first baby.
Frisco now nodded at the Captain. "Yeah," he said. "Definitely. O'Donlon's perfect for the assignment."
"What assignment?" Lucky asked. "If it's training an all-woman SEAL team, then, yes, thank you very much, I'm your man."
There, see? He'd managed to make a joke. He was already starting to feel better. Maybe he wasn't going out into the real world with Alpha Squad, but he was going to get a chance to work with his best friend again. And—his natural optimism returning—he just knew there was a Victoria's Secret model in his immediate future. This was California, after all. And he wasn't nicknamed Lucky for nothing.
But Frisco didn't laugh. In fact, he looked seriously grim as he tucked a copy of the morning paper beneath his arm. "Not even close. You're going to hate this."
Lucky looked into the eyes of the man he knew better than a brother. And he didn't have to say a word. Frisco knew it didn't really matter what his buddy did over the next few weeks. Everything would pale beside the lost opportunity of the assignment he'd passed up.
Frisco gestured for him to come outside.
Lucky took one last look around Alpha Squad's office. Harvard was already handling the paperwork that would put him temporarily under Frisco's command. Joe Cat was deep in discussion with Wes Skelly, who still looked unhappy that he'd been passed over yet again. Blue McCoy, Alpha Squad's executive officer, was on the phone, his voice lowered—probably talking to Lucy. He had on that telltale frown of concern he wore so often these days when he spoke to his wife. She was a San Felipe police detective, involved with some big secret case that had the usually unflappable Blue on edge.
Crash sat communing with his computer. Jones had left in a rush, but now he returned, his gear already organized. No doubt the dweeb had already packed last night, just in case, like a good little Boy Scout. Ever since the man had gotten married, he hurried home whenever he had the chance, instead of partying hard with Lucky and Bob and Wes. Jones's nickname was Cowboy, but his wild and woolly days of drinking and chasing women were long gone. Lucky had always considered the smooth-talking, good-looking Jones to be something of a rival both in love and war, but he was completely agreeable these days, walking around with a permanent smile on his face, as if he knew something Lucky didn't.
Even when Lucky had won the spot on the current team—the spot he'd just given up—Jones had smiled and shaken his hand.
The truth was, Lucky resented Cowboy Jones. By all rights, he should be miserable—a man like that—roped into marriage, tied down with a drooling kid in diapers.
Yeah, he resented Cowboy, no doubt about it.
Resented, and envied him his complete happiness.
Frisco was waiting impatiently by the door, but Lucky took his time. "Stay cool, guys."
He knew when Joe Cat got the order to go, the team would simply vanish. There would be no time spent on farewells.
"God, I hate it when they leave without me," he said to Frisco as he followed his friend into the bright sunshine. "So, what's this about?"
"You haven't seen today's paper, have you?" Frisco asked.
Lucky shook his head. "No, why?" Frisco silently handed him the newspaper he'd been holding.
The headline said it all—Serial Rapist Linked to Coronado SEALs?
Lucky swore pungently. "Serial rapist? This is the first I've heard of this."
"It's the first any of us have heard of this," Frisco said grimly. "But apparently there's been a series of rapes in Coronado and San Felipe over the past few weeks. And with the latest—it happened two nights ago—the police now believe there's some kind of connection linking the attacks. Or so they say."
Lucky quickly skimmed the article. There were very few facts about the attacks—seven—or about the victims. The only mention of the women who'd been attacked was of the latest—an unnamed I9-year-old college student. In all cases, the rapist wore a feature-distorting pair of panty hose on his head, but he was described as a Caucasian man with a crew cut, with either brown or dark blond hair, approximately six feet tall, muscularly built and about thirty years of age.
The article focused on ways in which women in both towns could ensure their safety. One of the tips recommended was to stay away—far away—from the U.S. Navy base.
The article ended with the nebulous statement, "When asked about the rumored connection of the serial rapist to the Coronado naval base, and in particular to the teams of SEALs stationed there, the police spokesman replied, 'Our investigation will be thorough, and the military base is a good place to start.'
"Known for their unconventional fighting techniques as well as their lack of discipline, the SEALs have had their presence felt in the towns of Coronado and San Felipe many times in the past, with late-night and early-morning explosions often startling the guests at the famed Hotel del Coronado. Lieutenant Commander Alan Francisco of the SEALs could not be reached for comment."
Lucky swore again. "Way to make us look like the spawn of Satan. And let me guess just how hard—" he looked at the top of the article for the reporter's name "—this S. Jameson guy tried to reach you for comment."
"Oh, the reporter tried," Frisco countered as he began moving toward the jeep that would take him across the base to his office. Lucky could tell from the way he leaned on his cane that his knee was hurting today. "But I stayed hidden. I didn't want to say anything to alienate the police until I had the chance to talk to Admiral Forrest. And he agreed with my plan."
"There's a task force being formed to catch this son of a bitch," Frisco told him. "Both the Coronado and San Felipe police are part of it—as well as the state police, and a special unit from FInCOM. The admiral pulled some strings, and got us included. That's why I went to see Cat and Harvard. I need an officer I can count on to be part of this task force. Someone I can trust."
Someone exactly like Lucky. He nodded. "When do I start?"
"There's a meeting in the San Felipe police station at 0900 hours. Meet me in my office—we'll go down there together. Wear your whites and every ribbon you've got." Frisco climbed behind the wheel of the jeep, tossing his cane into the back. "There's more, too. I want you to handpick a team, and I want you to catch this bastard. As quickly as possible. If the perp is a spec-warrior, we're going to need more than a task force to nail him."
Lucky held on to the side of the jeep. "Do you really think this guy could be one of us?"
Frisco shook his head. "I don't know. I hope to hell he's not."
The rapist had attacked seven women—one of them a girl just a little bit younger than his sister. And Lucky knew that it didn't matter who this bastard was. It only mattered that they stop him before he struck again.
"Whoever he is," he promised his best friend and commanding officer, "I'll find him. And after I do, he's going to be sorry he was born."
Sydney was relieved to find she wasn't the only woman in the room. She was glad to see that Police Detective Lucy McCoy was part of the task force being set up this morning, its single goal: to catch the San Felipe Rapist.
Out of the seven attacks, five had taken place in the lower-rent town of San Felipe. And although the two towns were high-school sports-team rivals, this was one case in which Coronado was more than happy to let San Felipe take the title.
They'd gathered here at the San Felipe police station ready to work together to apprehend the rapist.
Syd had first met Detective Lucy McCoy last Saturday night. The detective had arrived on the scene at Gina Sokoloski's apartment clearly pulled out of bed, her face clean of makeup, her shirt buttoned wrong—and spitting mad that she hadn't been called sooner.
Syd had been fiercely guarding Gina, who was fright-eningly glassy-eyed and silent after the trauma of her attack.
The male detectives had tried to be gentle, but even gentle couldn't cut it at a time like this. Can you tell us what happened, miss?
Sheesh. As if Gina would be able to look up at these men and tell them how she'd turned to find a man in her living room, how he'd grabbed her before she could run, slapped his hand across her mouth before she could scream, and then…
And then that Neanderthal who had nearly run Syd down on the stairs had raped this girl. Brutally. Violently. Syd would've bet good money that she had been a virgin, poor shy little thing. What an awful way to be introduced to sex.
Syd had wrapped her arms tightly around the girl, and told the detectives in no uncertain terms that they had better get a woman down here, pronto. After what Gina had been through, she didn't need to suffer the embarrassment of having to talk about it with a man.
But Gina had told Detective Lucy McCoy all of it, in a voice that was completely devoid of emotion—as if she were reporting facts that had happened to someone else, not herself.
She'd tried to hide. She'd cowered in the corner, and he hit her. And hit her. And then he was on top of her, tearing her clothing and forcing himself between her legs.